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British Citizens Imprisoned Overseas and Coronavirus

Volume 672: debated on Monday 2 March 2020

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on British citizens who are imprisoned abroad in countries where coronavirus is spreading rapidly.

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I will respond to this urgent question on behalf of the Foreign Secretary, who is travelling in the middle east.

Protecting British citizens at home and abroad is a top priority for the Government, and amid the outbreak of coronavirus, known as covid-19, the UK is leading the response. First, we are providing support to British citizens abroad, which includes travellers and their families in countries around the world. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is closely monitoring coronavirus throughout the world, through its diplomatic network. We are providing travel advice to British nationals, so that they can be sure of the facts before deciding whether to travel, and sure about what to do if they are affected by an outbreak of covid-19 while travelling.

The UK has introduced measures to ensure that travellers returning from abroad do not spread the virus further. We have put in place enhanced monitoring measures at UK airports, and health information is available at all international airports, ports, and train stations. We have established a supported isolation facility at Heathrow to cater for international passengers who are tested, and to maximise infection control and free-up NHS resources.

For British nationals caught up in the initial outbreaks of the virus, we have co-ordinated repatriation for those impacted in Wuhan, and passengers of the Diamond Princess cruise ship. We are working with the Spanish authorities and tour operators to support the return of British nationals affected by the situation in Tenerife.

We also continue to assist our British nationals who are detained in countries such as Iran, which has seen reports of a high number of cases of coronavirus. France, Germany and the United Kingdom have expressed their full solidarity with those impacted by covid-19 in Iran. We are offering Iran a comprehensive package of both material and financial support to stem the rapid spread of the disease. Today, a plane departed the UK with vital materials, such as equipment for laboratory tests, as well as other equipment including protective body suits and gloves.[Official Report, 4 March 2020, Vol. 672, c. 8MC.] The E3, namely the UK, France and Germany, has also committed to providing urgent additional financial support close to €5 million to fight the covid-19 epidemic affecting Iran. This will be through the World Health Organisation or other UN agencies.

We will continue to support global efforts to combat the outbreak of covid-19. Our support is directed to help the most vulnerable across the globe and to strengthen the global health system to protect our own nationals. We have provided £40 million of investment in vaccine and virus research, and £5 million to the World Health Organisation. We will continue to do all we can to help to keep British nationals safe and healthy around the world.

I have raised the concerns about the health of my constituent Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe several times in the Chamber, but today the situation is potentially fatal. The prison in which Nazanin is being held hostage has reported cases of coronavirus. She is seriously ill and is displaying symptoms associated with the virus. Her family are desperately worried about her and, Madam Deputy Speaker, I do not blame them.

Coronavirus is spreading through Iran at an alarming rate, as the Minister has just said, and Iran has actually pulled some of its own prisoners out of jails. Britain is pulling its non-essential staff out of the Tehran embassy in Iran. Yet the Iranian authorities are point-blank refusing to test Nazanin for coronavirus or any other British citizens in their jails. The United Nations Human Rights Council has made it clear that, under both Iranian and international law, Iran must provide medical treatment to Nazanin and British citizens like Nazanin.

What representations has the Minister made to Iran to test Nazanin specifically for coronavirus and to provide the full results? What assurances can he give that any results given by the Iranians will be reliable? The key point is that if we leave British citizens in harm’s way for long enough, they will come to harm. The Government face important choices over Nazanin’s case in the coming months. They must do everything possible to secure her permanent release and bring her back home.

Bearing that in mind, what instructions has the Prime Minister given to departmental and Government lawyers to resolve the debt that Britain owes to Iran? I read with interest the Iranian ambassador’s comments this afternoon about co-ordinating with British authorities to purchase urgent medical items—the Minister referred to that in his answer. Will he set out what humanitarian supplies the UK is providing to Iran to help it to tackle its growing public health crisis? Was my constituent’s potentially fatal medical condition mentioned in negotiations?

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s life hangs in the balance. I urge the Government to act and to act now.

The hon. Lady is right to raise this case. Things may have moved on a little bit today in terms of the testing with Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. The hon. Lady will appreciate that we are unable to comment on any medical assessments without the permission of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe. We are in touch, and have been in touch today, with her husband. I can assure the hon. Lady that we are in close contact with the Iranian authorities to urge them to secure a temporary release for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe on medical grounds. We clearly do not think she should be in prison in Iran in the first place.

The hon. Lady referred to the debt. We do not share the view that the IMS—International Military Services—debt, or any other bilateral issue, is the reason for Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s detention. We expect Iran to live up to its responsibilities under international human rights law and the Vienna convention on consular relations, and to release Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe and all other dual nationals that are in Iran.

I know that the whole House will be thinking about the British diplomatic staff in Tehran. What they are doing now is a reminder that it is not just the military but our diplomats, who put themselves in harm’s way in the national interest, and we are all very grateful to them for that.

Does not what is happening now highlight the moral bankruptcy of Iran’s position? It has taken a British citizen hostage and put her in jail completely wrongly, where she is then subject to catching, potentially, a very dangerous disease. My simple question is, has the Prime Minister called the President of Iran to make representations that Nazanin should be tested alongside the other dual nationals in Evin prison, or has the Foreign Secretary called his counterpart in Iran to insist on that happening? If they have not, it is absolutely essential that they do.

My right hon. Friend makes a fair point, which I agree with. On the point about our consular staff, we reduced the number of staff at the embassy in Tehran on 1 March. Some staff were temporarily withdrawn due to the ongoing outbreak, but essential staff needed to continue this critical work will remain. I assure him that we have been engaging—today, in fact—with the deputy Foreign Minister and that our ambassador is working on behalf of all our dual nationals in that country.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for applying for it.

In the short time that I have, I want to make a heartfelt plea to the Government of Iran. We all have long memories in this House, and if I was to mention certain Iranian place names, such as Manjil, Rudbar or Bam, they would conjure up images of people diligently digging through rubble, searching for surviving earthquake victims. Among them were British firefighters, doctors and aid workers, supported by donations from the British people. They were all desperate to do their bit and were moved by nothing but mercy and love for their Iranian brothers and sisters. They never stopped to think about politics, sanctions or diplomacy; they just saw a humanitarian need and acted—acted on the common bonds of kindness and compassion that unite our two peoples.

When we address Tehran today, we can only ask it to do the same. For once, do not see Nazanin as a political football. Do not see Nazanin as a bargaining chip. Instead, see Nazanin the way the rest of the world does, particularly facing this new and terrifying threat to her health. See Nazanin as the loving mother desperate to get back to Gabriella. See Nazanin as the devoted wife in need of Richard’s care. See Nazanin as we saw those innocent people lying helpless in the rubble of a humanitarian crisis. You today have it in your gift to save her. Nazanin does not deserve this fresh suffering. She deserves only to come home today.

I hope that the Minister will join me in that plea and make a solemn commitment that if Tehran acts with compassion and generosity today, we will not forget our obligations to act with fairness and justice in resolving the other issues of dispute between our two countries.

The right hon. Lady makes a very heartfelt plea, which Government Members will find it difficult to disagree with. It is important that we continue the dialogue. That is incredibly difficult because the Iranian authorities do not recognise Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s dual nationality, so we do not get full consular access, but I assure the right hon. Lady that we continue to lobby on behalf of Nazanin and all other dual nationals. In a spirit of cordiality, I agree with everything that the right hon. Lady said.

I, too, welcome the words of the shadow Foreign Secretary, who is right to talk about Nazanin being a mother and wife, not a political football, but could we not extend that to the Iranian people, who for too long have been the victims of this tyranny and in many instances incarcerated by these theocratic despots, much like Nazanin? Would this not be a good moment for Her Majesty’s Government to reach out and offer assistance and care to the ordinary people of Iran? We have seen the deputy Health Minister in Iran fall ill with coronavirus and the Ayatollah’s chief medical adviser allegedly die of it. Surely this is the moment for the UK to reach out and say, “We are with the Iranian people, and always have been, and they will always be our friends.”

My hon. Friend the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee makes a very good point in the best of terms. He will no doubt have been encouraged by what I said in my answer to the urgent question about how, alongside France and Germany—the E3—we are providing almost €5 million of support directly to the people of Iran. From the UK, that means up to £2 million of financial aid and funding for technical expertise to UN agencies. I am very glad he would support that.

I commend the Minister on the statement outlining the international efforts the United Kingdom is taking part in to combat this outbreak —now is the time for us all to work across party boundaries and international borders—but can I reiterate the question about Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe? Will he respond to the question about the Prime Minister’s involvement? Will he reassure the House that he will urge the Prime Minister, if he has not done so already, to intervene in her case directly to make up for his earlier interventions?

As I just explained, it is very difficult when the Iranian authorities do not recognise dual nationality. The Prime Minister has met Nazanin’s family, as the hon. Gentleman will know, but we do not have full consular access; we use our people on the ground instead. The ambassador and the staff there are doing a fantastic job in trying circumstances. We are intervening: not only have we spoken to Mr Ratcliffe today—the Foreign Office is in regular contact with the family—but we have made very strong representations today on behalf of Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe stating that she should get the right treatment and indeed be released from that prison.

The hon. Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) is right to raise the plight of her constituent and other dual nationals wrongfully detained in Evin prison. Can the Minister say how the welcome €5 million pledged by the E3 will be spent and indicate whether the authorities in Tehran are prepared to accept it?

I can. I know that my right hon. Friend and former holder of my post takes a keen interest in this area. We are offering Iran a comprehensive package of material and financial support to halt and combat the rapid spread of this disease, and this support is being delivered through the World Health Organisation and the UN. I am pleased to report that I understand that the Iranian ambassador to the UK has tweeted his support for our support.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for asking this urgent question and for the great support she has shown to the family. Is the Minister aware of how many dual UK-Iran nationals there are in Iran and in Iranian jails, and whether any of them have compromised immune systems? I know that is very technical, but it does matter. Could he also give any advice to dual nationals or UK citizens in Iran about how they should go about contacting consular staff if they are concerned?

I am not in a position to the give the hon. Lady those full details, as she will appreciate; it is certainly not right for any Minister to comment on anybody’s medical situation. I can say, however, that our consulate in Iran is there and able to telephone and email. I hope people have access to the internet. We have a team there and they are very much prepared to help. We are also offering help to dual nationals in the UK and advising Iranian-British dual nationals not to travel to Iran. That is a bit of advice we have updated in recent days.

May I underline the positive suggestion made by the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Tom Tugendhat)? We have a very large overseas aid budget. Surely the foreign affairs ministerial team should see this as an opportunity to offer practical medical assistance to the country, and, in so doing, improve the relationship, with beneficial consequences for the prisoners who are being held, justifiably or, more probably, not.

My right hon. Friend has made a fair point. We are doing an awful lot in terms of support. As I said in my statement, we have provided £45 million in aid thus far, on top of the €5 million through the E3. We are taking our responsibilities very seriously. The sheer fact that the ambassador has reached out in the way that he has is very encouraging.

Even allowing for probable under-reporting, the rate of death from coronavirus in Iran is probably the worst in the world, currently running at about 7%. Of course, our concerns are primarily with Nazanin and her family, but they must surely reach all the people of Iran as well. In expressing those concerns and in seeking to find a way to bring those people some relief, will the Minister undertake to work not just through the normal channels of diplomacy, directly and bilaterally, but with our many other friends in the Gulf region who are well suited and well placed to assist?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I am sure that, as the Foreign Secretary continues his travels in the Gulf this week, the question of how Iran’s neighbours, along with us, can provide that support will be very much on the agenda.

Can my hon. Friend confirm that, while dealing with Nazanin’s case, Her Majesty’s Government will continue to advocate the release of all our dual nationals detained by Iran? Will he also update the House on the welfare and security of Her Majesty’s ambassador, and of all Crown servants and other British embassy staff and their dependants who are in Tehran?

As I mentioned in my statement, we have reduced the number of staff in our embassy in Tehran. That was a precautionary but very much a temporary measure. Our essential staff will continue to do their critical work, and they will remain in post.

I am sure the Minister will agree that this coronavirus is a dreadful thing. It will probably come here much more than it is doing at present, but the people of Iran are suffering greatly, and we should do everything that we can for them during this crisis because that is the right thing to do—not as a quid pro quo, but in building a better relationship with Iran. Will he please push this as hard as he can? We want to be generous to the Iranian people, and to rebuild trust with that nation.

The hon. Gentleman is spot on. That is exactly what we want to do, and it is why we have reached out with assistance today, alongside France and Germany. At a time of global crisis such as this, it is incredibly important for countries to come together to support the most vulnerable. Given the number of cases and the number of deaths experienced by Iran, we will of course take that into consideration, and that is why we are offering our support.

May I associate myself with the comments of the right hon. Member for Islington South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry)? Using mothers as political footballs is rarely a good look, but she finds herself in a difficult position, in part because of the failure of some of the medical staff and the overview that the Iranian Government have. Does the Minister agree that Professor Chris Whitty, the chief medical officer, and his team have done the most wonderful job since before Christmas, and we should be very grateful that we have them as part of the British association?

Indeed so. This is the most challenging health issue that this country—and in fact the world—has faced for as long as I have been in this House, and the pressure on our chief medical officers and all our professionals must be immense. But, having attended the Cobra meeting this morning, I can say that we are very well served by some absolutely professional, superb civil servants.

What reassurance can the Minister give me that my constituent, an employee of the British Council, which is part of the Foreign Office, will have care that is just as good as that of anyone else in Evin prison? I commend the fact that the Government have given extra money to the international effort to tackle coronavirus.

I can absolutely give the hon. Lady that assurance. We are aware of the additional number of dual-national prisoners, including the constituent to whom she refers, who was an employee of the British Council.

I am sure the Minister will agree that a huge part of containing the virus internationally is quick decision making at the Foreign Office, so what organisational changes has he made at the Foreign Office to monitor and protect British nationals overseas who are at risk of getting coronavirus, and to act quickly once they are identified?

The Foreign Office has not been slow to respond to this threat. I can assure my hon. Friend that the crisis response team, which is headquartered in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has been working round the clock with our teams and embassies throughout the world. We are providing consular assistance to British nationals affected in areas that have the virus and, crucially, we are working with our partners across the world to co-ordinate those responses.

May I first commend my hon. Friend the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn (Tulip Siddiq) for securing this urgent question today and for her persistence on behalf of her constituent? I also want to ask the Minister what direct briefings he has had from the Department of Health and Social Care about the advice that it has been able to give to British citizens who are imprisoned abroad on how to protect themselves from contracting coronavirus.

When prisoners abroad fall under the jurisdictions of the countries where they are, our embassies and our consular network stand ready to give support to those who are imprisoned. It is important that we keep up that dialogue. It is irrelevant whether the people in prison are British nationals or otherwise; they are still entitled to support, should they request it, and in some cases they have been requesting it.

There have been great concerns about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s health over the years. Could the Minister just tell us: when was the last time the Government specifically asked for her release on humanitarian grounds?

Those requests happen on a regular basis, I can assure the hon. Gentleman. Given the concern over the potential health of Nazanin, we have been asking for her to be released on medical grounds, but the point remains that we do not believe she should be there in the first place, and she should be released forthwith.

What assessment has the Minister made of the sanitary conditions inside Iranian prisons, including Evin prison, where Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is being held at the moment?

As the hon. Lady will appreciate, it is impossible for consular staff to gain access to the prison. We are in contact with Nazanin’s family and the families of other detainees at Evin prison, so we get reports back from the families and they provide incredibly useful intelligence when we are making our representations to Foreign Ministers from Iran.

Considering the serious nature of the outbreak of coronavirus and the deterioration of the health of my constituent, Mr Ashoori, who will soon turn 66, what will the Government’s response be, should there be a serious risk to his health because of coronavirus and to the health of other British nationals because of this outbreak?

As I mentioned previously, we continue to have dialogue with the Iranian authorities. We have been speaking with them today. Under any international rules system, prisoners should be afforded the best possible treatment. We are in constant contact with the Iranian authorities and I can assure the hon. Lady that her constituent will be getting equal attention in terms of our consular efforts.